From followers and game mechanics to more valuable social functionality

Some interesting perspectives appeared this week on game mechanics in social media and the corrupting devaluation of social systems, user experience, and metrics that seems to accompany follower counts, foursquare check-ins, and other numerical incentives to use.

I just want to throw in my two cents from a social interaction design perspective. I agree that the simplicity of incentive models predicated on growing your numbers (and status) exist. (What I’ve called the apparency problem in social media: the apparent appearance of social status and relevance.)

But I think these are systemic outcomes and not necessarily a reflection of human nature alone — as is often argued.

I’ll start with context, and with brief excerpts from Peter Michaud, Dare Obasanjo, and Louis Gray. And begin with a status update from Alex Payne of twitter. (Contrast with this recently from Craig Newmark: “Design and esthetics don’t solve problems”)

“Game mechanics aren’t going to fix your product and they aren’t making people’s lives better. Great essay:″ Alex Payne, twitter

Peter Michaud, in an aptly titled post on Achievement Porn, writes:

  1. Our society is set up to make us feel as though we must always achieve and grow. That’s true because individuals growing tend to bolster the power and creature comforts of the groups they belong to with inventions, innovations, and impressive grandstanding (Go Team!).
  2. Because of this pressure to grow, there’s another incentive to make growth easier. More perversely, to make growth seem easier.

Dare Obasanjo, reflecting on Peter’s piece in Achievements, Game Mechanics and Social Software, agrees that game mechanics should not be used as an easy fix but notes their marketing appeal:

“I will say game mechanics can more than “fix” a social software product, they can make it a massive success that it’s users are obsessed with.
Finally, is it better for me as a person to have traded achievement treadmills where I have little control over the achievements (i.e. number of blog subscribers, number of people who download a desktop RSS reader, etc) for one where I have complete control of the achievements as long as I dedicate the time?”

Finally, Louis Gray, writing yesterday in an un-related about followers, addresses the metrics, value, meaning, and bias problems:
The Followers Game Is So 2008. Time for New Metrics.

“Humans have this innate sense of need to be ahead of all others, to measure themselves, and deliver some level of self-assigned worth thanks to what are questionably valuable statistics.
We have got to achieve more accurate ratings of influence that determine value.
How would social networks be improved if we just hid them away entirely, and stopped looking at growth or relative sizes? My value is still the same, in terms of quality, whether I have an audience of 2,000 or 20,000, especially if I have the right people.”

I think there are several points worth making here from a perspective of social interaction design.

First, it’s not humans or human nature that are the cause of this. It’s systems and the design of social experiences and systems. To attribute the follower incentive and achievement reward dynamics to human nature I think falsely attributes outcomes to essential human values. Social theory tells me that individuals of any society will choose and reflect values validated socially. And viewed empirically, societies around the world are organized in wonderfully different ways, manifest in a tremendous range of culturally diverse traditions and pastimes.

So I think this is a matter of social organization and not of individual human nature.

Secondly, we need to consider not only the outcomes for social systems — those being a devolution of interaction and a devaluation of meaningful differences — but also the user experience and user actions the system enables.

Social outcomes, including those that characterize the dysfunctional if not failing state of many social media designs, reflect aggregate individual user choices and selections. Users can only do what the system permits them to do. And in the case of social design, user choices are a reflection of individual nature and interest only on the first order of interaction — where users engage through UI and features.

At the second order of social interaction, where aggregated individual activities are presented back to the population and used to thematically distinguish the tool as a social experience, system choices lend bias and weight to activities that matter and privilege those that make the most difference.

Social media are intrinsically socially diffuse and the social activities possible in them are for the most part only loosely coupled. Given that a user’s interest in a social system is a reflection not only of his or her interests but of his or her social position, actions and activities that make the most social difference readily stand out.

Actions like following and follower numbers matter because system designers choose to surface these numbers as an individual difference made that makes social differentiation possible.

The problem is in the simplicity of these social models or mechanics. Following is a unilateral action. It may solicit reciprocity but is successful, as an action, without it. That’s Michaud’s easy achievement but stripped down to the basics: acts that make a social difference. (We don’t need to attribute the act to human interest in achievements and a cultural inclination for success. For we could refer back to psychological validation, interpersonal recognition, or many other motivations just as equally.)

Furthermore, following serves as a gesture of interest, of one user in another. But as a form of communication it lays no burden on the one followed to engage or participate. So in a blind social regime like twitter, it offers a low-risk means of connecting precisely because it’s asymmetrical. And in a disconnected social order like twitter, connection is the first step to social relations.

That we pay attention to this stuff, as we all are profoundly aware of, is testimony to the fact that these systems have successfully provided one metric by which to measure social value. But it is clearly an underwhelming and uninspiring metric, when viewed from the perspective of user acts and not overall influence or status. The attention accrued to status achieved by means of numbers and counts betrays the user’s interest in deeper and more meaningful interpersonal or social engagement.

In other words, the value surfaced and valued by the system is not very valuable from the perspective of attention paid and sustained by users, or value derived from use and experience. Consequently, our social uses of social media (the micro) suffer devaluation at the hands of system values (the macro). It’s a bit like being in a country that continually devalues its currency.

Social systems can function technically and operationally even when they are dysfunctional socially. In ways our entire social order grinds along in spite of or perhaps because of fundamental and internal dysfunctionalities. It would be hard to tell the difference in fact between a social system that reproduces itself in order to fix its problems from one that reproduces itself because it is successful and growing.

The challenge ahead for open and distributed social media is, I think, in coming up with better and more well understood social dynamics. Acts and actions that satisfy on the first order of user experience but which result in more compelling, meaningful, and socially interesting system dynamics and outcomes. Ambiguity needs to be our friend, numbers less so.

All social systems can handle more information as they complexify internally. So our information problem may be an internal complexity problem. But if so, then one to be addressed by differentiating the ways in which communication communicates and makes a social difference. This, not coincidentally, at a time when social media encourage ever increasing amounts of communication.

Greater differentiation of social activities and better social design at the presentation layer will permit more user behaviors and activities to make a difference. And when that happens, social complexity and differentiation will engage more, better, and with richer and more diverse results.

I see us moving forward from a phase in which basic and open socially networked communication tools established early and basic practices, like following, and now begin to integrate more and different types of social interactions. If this pans out, simple means of getting attention will fade in value and be replaced by activities that are genuinely more interesting.

Foursquare vs Yelp: Recommendations and Reviews
Social Interaction Design: Leaderboard
Social media: the attention economy explained

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